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UK records hottest-ever temperature

July 19, 2022

Western Europe continues to bake in extreme heat, with the UK recording a temperature over 40 degrees Celsius for the first time, and wildfires burning through French forests. Relief is expected later in the week.

The silhouette of people gathered to watch the sunrise on Cullercoats Bay
The sun rises on a record-breaking hot day in the UK Image: Owen Humphreys/empics/picture alliance

The United Kingdom on Tuesday provisionally recorded its hottest-ever temperature reading, with the mercury rising above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time. A temperature of 40.2 C was recorded at London Heathrow in the early afternoon, according to the Met Office weather service. 

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said that the high temperatures have caused a "huge surge" in fires across the city and that the London fire brigade is under "immense pressure." The fire service declared a major incident and urged people to stop having barbecues.

One incident involves 100 firefighters responding to a grass fire in Wennington on the eastern edge of London where flames had engulfed people's houses.

The record-breaking day follows the UK's warmest-ever night, with temperatures in some regions remaining above 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) from Monday to Tuesday, according to the Met Office.

The 40 C mark was announced shortly after the day's first record-breaking reading of 39.1 C was provisionally recorded at Charlwood in the southern Surrey region. 

The UK's previous all-time record high of 38.7 C (101.7 F) was set in 2019. 

Tuesday's record could be broken again as the day goes on, with temperatures expected to continue rising in the afternoon. 

"Forty-one isn't off the cards,'' said Met Office CEO Penelope Endersby. "We've even got some 43s in the model, but we're hoping it won't be as high as that.''

The Met Office will need to validate the equipment used to measure the temperature before it officially becomes a recorded high. 

On Monday, British officials issued the UK's first-ever extreme heat emergency, extending from London in the south to Manchester and Leeds in the north. Train services were disrupted by buckled rails, and more travel disruption is expected on Tuesday.

"We're probably going to see the hottest day ever in the UK recorded today," Transport Minister Grant Shapps told the BBC. "Infrastructure, much of which was built from the Victorian times, just wasn't built to withstand this type of temperature."

The mercury reached 38.1 C on Monday in Suffolk, in eastern England, which was the hottest temperature recorded in the UK this year, and the third-hottest day on record.

Average July temperatures in the UK range from highs of 21 C to nighttime lows of 12 C, and few homes or small businesses have air conditioning.

People pack into a London subway
Rail services in the UK are expected to be interrupted on Tuesday Image: Aaron Chown/empics/picture alliance

UN says heat wave could continue until next week

The UN's World Meteorological Organization said that the temperatures will probably peak on Tuesday, but the heat wave could continue for a few more days.

"We are expecting the peak to be today across France, the UK, possibly even Switzerland," Robert Stefanski, the WMO's applied climate services chief, said.

 "And the question everybody's asking, looking ahead, when will this end? Unfortunately, looking at all the models... possibly not until the middle of next week."

WMO chief Petteri Taalas also warned that "independent of our success in climate mitigation efforts," the trend in more frequent heat waves will continue until at least 2060.

"Emissions are still growing and therefore it's not sure that we would see the peak in the 2060s if we are not able to bend this emission growth development, especially in the big Asian countries which are the largest emitters," Taalas added.

Wildfires in France 

On the other side of the English Channel, French weather officials reported record high temperatures in 64 different areas in France on Monday. Most of the highs were recorded near the western Atlantic coast

Saint-Brieuc, on the normally temperate coast of Brittany, topped 39.5 C. The western city of Nantes recorded 42 C, beating a decades-old high of 40.3 C set in 1949. France's all-time temperature record was 45.9 C, recorded in 2019 near the southern city of Montpellier

In southwestern France's Gironde region, two large wildfires raging for a week across dry pine forests have forced the evacuation of 32,000 people. The blazes have already destroyed a total of 190 square kilometers (more than 70 square miles) of forest.

Fire officials said strong winds and heat are fanning the flames, despite the deployment of waterbombing aircraft.

DW correspondent Barbara Wesel reporting from Gironde said the forests in the area are "tinder dry" and go up in flames very easily driven by strong winds.

"The temperatures have let up a bit so it's easier for the firefighters, but the wind makes their life incredibly difficult because the fire jumps from one side of the road to the other."

Bright flames in a forest
Tinder-dry pine forests have been burning for a week in the coastal region south of BordeauxImage: Service Communication-Protocole SDIS 33/AP/picture alliance

The blaze was literally "blowing things up" with its ferocity, said Marc Vermeulen, head of the local firefighting service, adding that exploding trees were scattering embers and spreading the blaze further. "We're facing extreme and exceptional circumstances,'' he said.

French weather channel La Chaine Meteo reported Tuesday that conditions in the affected regions are forecast to improve over the next 48 hours, with an eastern wind from the Atlantic bringing thunderstorms and cooler temperatures. 

Fire risk high in Germany 

Germany's weather service (DWD) said Tuesday that parts of the country's west could crack the 40 C mark, putting the all-time temperature record of 41.2 C recorded in 2019 within reach.

The DWD said the extreme heat is centered on the Western states of Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, especially including low-lying areas on the Rhine and Ruhr rivers.

Areas of Germany have also raised forest fire alert levels. In 10 of Germany's 16 states, predominately in the south, west and northeast, the highest of five alert stages has been issued. 

In the Sauerland area of North Rhine-Westphalia, 200 firefighters responded to a large forest fire on Tuesday afternoon with water dropped from helicopters. Fire officials said high winds and heat were keeping the flames alive. The cause of the fire was not immediately clear. 

The Bavarian forestry minister has called on the public to be especially careful when walking through forests, warning that even a single cigarette butt can ignite an inferno.

How is the heat affecting other European regions?

Further south in Spain, wildfires in the northwestern Zamora province have claimed two lives. The body of a 69-year-old sheep farmer was found Monday in the same area where a 62-year-old firefighter had died Sunday.

On Tuesday, the EFE news agency reported that 5,800 people were ordered evacuated from 34 towns in Zamora, and eight roads in the region have been closed. 

Spain's El Pais newspaper reported Tuesday that wildfires have burned a total of over 60,000 hectares across the country. Twenty out of the 30 fires in Spain remain uncontrolled. 

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on Tuesday said Europe's heat wave will likely peak on Tuesday, but added that temperatures are forecast to remain higher than normal into next week. 

Meteorologist Matthew Cappucci told DW that human-induced climate change means more heat waves can be expected in the future.

"Right now this is a roughly once in 100 to 300-year event. By the end of the century, thanks to human-induced climate change, it will be a once in ever 10 to 15-year event," he said.

"Heat waves getting worse, getting longer, and getting more severe will have a much higher human impact," he added.

In Greece, people living in several municipalities on the outskirts of the capital Athens were evacuated after a large forest fire broke out close to Mount Penteli.

Nine aircraft and four helicopters were deployed to tackle the flames, fire service officials said.

Italian firefighters evacuated over 100 people from their homes in the region of Tuscany after a large forest fire burned through an area of around 400 hectares.

Five helicopters and four planes were brought in to douse the flames. The blaze caused disruption to the express train line between Florence and Rome as the fire got close to the track in one area.

Europe in grips of severe heat wave

ab, wmr/aw (Reuters, AP, dpa, EFE, AFP)